June 8th, 2006

Auto Assault

MMO Theory: Herd Behavior

As I said yesterday, I'm in the unpleasant position of having to pick whether to spend my budgeted money and time for massively multiplayer online roleplaying games on City of Heroes/Villains or on Auto Assault. And based on the single biggest gripe I have with every other MMO, namely the exponential "grind" of the leveling curve after the first dozen or two dozen character levels, Auto Assault is the clear winner hands down. It's unmistakably the game I want to play for the next couple of months. So what's stopping me?

MMO Herd Behavior

Nobody picks their favorite massively multiplayer online game based on any opinion of their own as to which one is the best game. Or hardly anyone, at best. I am firmly convinced of this, because no matter which game they play, they have the same number of complaints about it that everybody in other games has about their own. Frequently, they're the same complaints. Nor can you convince me, by any argument I have ever heard or can imagine, that 50% of the MMO marketplace (more on that in a second) just coincidentally happened to all fall in love with the same game at the same time.

I know this because almost everybody I have talked to places one "feature" above all others, and that is that they play the same game that all their friends are playing. This makes tremendous amounts of sense, truth be told. After all, considering how many single player games there are out there and that none of them charge a monthly fee, what conceivable reason would people have for paying $9 to $17 a month unless it was so that they could play it with their friends? Now, with that in mind, observe the following table, extracted from the most recent Analysis and Conclusions section on MMOGchart.com:

SF MMOs by Date of ReleaseEst. Players
Anarchy Online12,000
EVE Online121,156
Star Wars: Galaxies190,000
City of Heroes/Villains182,858
The Matrix Online40,000
Auto Assault?

... and here's the real kicker. What those numbers, by themselves, don't render sufficiently stark is that this is in comparison to World of Warcraft, which has six and a half million players. That's about the same as the total for every other MMO combined. Nor is this a new and surprising development, in its context: from when the genre first began until Everquest came out, over half the players were in Ultima Online, because that was where their friends were. When Everquest came out, vast numbers of new MMO subscribers quickly eclipsed UO, which whithered on the vine because nobody new was joining it. Why not? Because everybody's friends were playing EQ. Then came World of Warcraft, which quickly added millions of new players, and since then virtually every game before or since is slowly whithering on the vine. Hardly anybody signs up for them, because all their friends are playing WoW.

(Neocron's numbers aren't even listed on MMOGchart.com, either; Reakktor Media plays that very close to their chest. But I just glanced at their player forums, where I saw it said that the peak population lately on the main server has been 130 players. Ouch. That's down from a claimed subscriber base of 60,000 people at one point. Ouch twice. No wonder they don't talk about it.)

What are the numbers for my current favorite, Auto Assault? NCsoft won't say. That's a bad sign in and of itself. OK, they're giving it time to grow before releasing any bad news; after all, the thing's only been out for a couple of months. But on the designated roleplaying server, just a little past prime time Wednesday night, I did a global "/who" command and found out that there were only 19 mutants, total, on the whole server. Mutants are the smallest faction, so the total number may have been as much as six or seven times that. So let's be generous and assume that there were a total of 150 people on the whole server, spread across levels 1 to 80, spread across 3 factions. How bad is that? The whole night, I never saw more than 4 people. On the main level 20 to 40 map for the mutants, I never saw more than two at a time. This is a hot topic of conversation (as you might expect) on the Auto Assault game forums. I asked one of the louder complainers how many of his friends he had persuaded to play AA so they could play with him. He told me he managed to persuade 40 people to take them up on the 14-day free trial. Only 4 of them subscribed for even a single month, and the other 36 all gave the exact same reason why not. They all agreed that it was a great game ... but there weren't enough people in it to play with, because everybody is playing World of Warcraft. That tracks my experience, too -- out of all the people I know personally or online who play CoH, I managed to persuade exactly one of them to try the free trial. She won't play, either. Same reason: not enough people.

Well, guess what. I'm not going to play World of Warcraft, period. It's not because I don't like Blizzard; on the contrary, I have tremendous respect for Blizzard's track record for creating interesting game worlds. It's mostly that, to paraphrase from memory what one guy said on the Neocron forums, I'd rather gouge my own eyes out with a rusty spoon than be part of some 13 year old girl's cutsie elf and unicorn fantasy. The middle ages are probably my least favorite time period in all of history (which is the main reason I dropped out of SCA, too, for that matter). Adding D&D races and spells to the European dark ages doesn't make them any more attractive to me. Someone at NetDevil, the company that developed AA, obviously understands what I'm feeling. One of the little grace notes of humor is that the "status" displays as it loads the next map, when crossing from cities to highways or from big highway map to big highway map, are deliberately fake and written for humor's sake -- and one of the random "status" messages is "... Scraping elf paste off of tires ...." I have seen enough elves, dwarves, wizards, druids, orcs, goblins, unicorns, trolls, and dragons to satisfy any interest I had in that subject long, long ago. Now that preference all by its lonesome, this preference for anything other than yet another D&D ripoff, is enough to keep me from being able to socialize with the 92.6% of all MMO subscribers who are playing D&D ripoffs. And of the remaining tiny fraction that make up the science fiction gamers, at least 80% of those are playing either Star Wars or City of Heroes, a game I can no longer stand or a game I'm at least temporarily bored with.

I suddenly find myself in the same situation as some friends of mine who, years ago when virtually everybody we knew was hanging out at a coffehouse called Caffiend, hated the place and wanted to go almost anywhere else instead. I'm also reminded of the lie that virtually every parent tells their child, implicitly, when they taunt them with, "If everybody else jumped off a cliff, would you?" I've long thought that the correct answer to that, if any kid knew, was, "Oh, right, and you wouldn't?" If everybody else jumps off the cliff and you don't, it's going to be awfully lonely up there at the top. And you better never have anything go wrong with you that requires any help, because all of society's resources will be directed towards the problems of those down there at the bottom, where everybody else is. I'm also reminded of the old joke about the mother who pointed at her son in the marching band as it went by and said, "Oh, look! Everybody's out of step but Johnny!"

So I can play a game that I love with the tiny handful of total strangers who also appreciate it. Or I can go on grinding boringly in City of Villains with my friends. I can roleplay to an almost empty room in Auto Assault, or I can roleplay in an environment where even on the roleplaying server the vast majority of the conversation is totally out of character but at least there is some conversation. Gahh. I hate facing this choice. Man, my life would be better if I could persuade more of my friends to screw peer pressure and come play the fun game. Unfortunately, persuading other people to have my kind of fun has never been something I was particularly good at, not without handing out hundreds of dollars of free booze at a time.